Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Heavenly Sword

Damn, 2007 was a gooood year. Before the seventh generation became little more than corporate greed and generic faceless crap, there were a bunch of games that could give a lot of the previous generation a run for its money. Games like Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Crysis, Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy and the subject of today's review, Heavenly Sword manage to make PS2, Xbox and Gamecube games look like yesterday's news. Smoother, more detailed graphics leading to tighter game mechanics, with better sound quality to further enhance the experience – sign me up!! Heavenly Sword, unfortunately, had the displeasure of being released on the Playstation 3 and only the Playstation 3 because in this otherwise glorious year for gaming, “PS3 HAS NO GAEMS” wasn't just a simple obvious troll comment, but it was also an actual argument. It's a bit of a shame because Heavenly Sword is fantastic. Of course, it's easily to make claims like “too short” and “too much like God Of War” back then, but now, the former point isn't as relevant as it was back then because now, it's like 20 bucks instead of $60-90, and the latter point is irrelevant because God Of War ripped off Lament Of Innocence and made it into a terrible game, while Heavenly Sword took some elements from God Of War and worked them into a great game.

It all begins with the story. While the game opens up with a big battle between our heroine, Nariko, and thousands of soldiers with her dying at the end, it actually begins five days before the big battle. Nariko is seen as a burden to the clan as she was supposed to be the brave manly warrior who would wield the mythical, cursed blade known as the Heavenly Sword to save them from the evil of the Raven Lord. Instead, she just so happened to be born a woman. Hooray for sexism, right folks? Better get Anita Sarkeesian to do another 20 minute video where she basically reads a Wikipedia article while we pretend to care about what she says! But suddenly, Lord Bohan's army attacks their stronghold and takes most of the clan prisoner, including Nariko's father. While fleeing with the Heavenly Sword, Nariko gets ambushed by Bohan's army and must wield the sword in order to protect herself. Unfortunately, the Heavenly Sword's curse seeps within her body – she only has five days to live before the curse overpowers her body and kills her. From this point, Nariko has to save her clan and kill Lord Bohan before she dies.

While the story itself seems like a stock standard affair, the characters are brimming with personality. Not so much Nariko herself as much as the other bigger characters. Fellow outcast, Kai, is an endearing childlike character that balances out Nariko's more tragic motivations and serious personality, even when you have to play as her and slaughter a few of King Bohan's men. Nariko herself is the perfect tragic protagonist as she is mainly serious and doesn't take any crap from anyone, especially now that she has the Heavenly Sword that'll kill her in five days. But the stars are the villains, especially King Bohan. He's so charmingly over the top that you can't help but love to hate him, especially when you see the way he treats his bastard son, Roach. The other bad guys are also charmingly over the top and manage to play off of Nariko's straight laced personality – alongside Nariko's more snarky sense of humor, which helps make the scenes between them that bit more interesting while highlighting the more crazy aspects of the villains' personalities - while breathing life into the sequence of events on their own, but King Bohan does that like ten times over, making him the perfect main villain!

Heavenly Sword is a hack and slash with an interesting combat system. Instead of equipping one weapon at a time or at best, a main weapon and a sub weapon, the Heavenly Sword is actually three weapons in one, depending on what stance Nariko's in. There's the speed stance, where the sword transforms into two blades that offers a balanced mixture of speed and strength. There's the range stance, where the two blades are chained together like a whip that she flails about – it doesn't do quite as much damage, but it covers a wide area. Then you have power stance, where the sword transforms into a heavy sword and, while it's slow, deals a lot of damage with each hit. Now, this is the sort of model the DmC reboot uses and having played that game's demo before going through this game, I was worried that Heavenly Sword would be an unchallenging mess full of button mashing and cheap hits.

Well, it is and it isn't. It is when the enemies range from generic grunts to grunts with more armor and the occasional kunoichi, all of which aren't exactly tough. It's easy to figure out a way to kill each type of enemy by messing with stances and all but performing riverdance on their reproductive organs. It isn't, however, when you have to figure out a means of countering gangs of them. Strength is most certainly in numbers and while I would actually lambast a game for this, when one is as hypnotically engaging and satisfying as this, it's hard to really criticize this approach to combat. Add on the counter system – basically, you don't press anything except maybe R1 or L1, depending on what color aura is around the enemy when they attack, and you see Nariko really mess them up – and it becomes a combat engine that's very satisfying when you get the hang of it, not to mention engaging to watch and perform. I do find it silly that the only way to perform aerial combos is to launch an enemy up into the air, flick the controller up (oh believe me, I'll be giving the sixaxis its time in the sun in a bit, but let's keep it to one topic at a time) and then perform the combo. See, I've always been under the impression that you can jump in the air without the need for a launch attack, but Heavenly Sword doesn't even have a jump button. You can do some flips to dodge attacks with the right analogue stick, but that's about it, and you can't perform attacks that are built off of the momentum from your dodges. But hey, what we do have works very well.

Not only will you be fighting against groups of enemies, but you'll also fight the occasional boss. There aren't a lot of bosses, but what there are, are pretty good. Generally speaking, you'll be dodging their attacks and then performing combos on them when they're left open. At times, you can counter their attacks as like enemies, bosses' attacks are color coordinated, meaning that being in the right stance can mean the difference between an ass whooping and delivering the pain to them. The fights are refreshingly challenging, managing to offer a balance of them delivering strong attacks while never cheap shotting you into a combo you can't escape from, which is something a lot of games can't seem to nail these days. However – and this is where all of the God Of War comparisons come from – when you whittle down their health to a point where it's nearly empty, you'll have to perform a series of quick time events. Great, just what this game needs, some goddamn quick time events, because we sure love them! Whether you just press the direction on the d-pad or mash the button that's on screen, you'll need to keep your eyes firmly wedged on the center of the screen. Otherwise, you'll either die and have to fight them all over again, or just fight them all over again; it depends on where you fail. These can result in some cheap deaths, especially when you have to press on the d-pad diagonally. Yeah, cheap deaths against otherwise tough but fair bosses. Good job Ninja Theory.

But you don't just play as Nariko – you'll often play as Kai, who has a crossbow at her disposal. The idea is to have her backflip away from enemies and shoot them in the head. When you're in aim mode, it uses the camera setup also seen in Resident Evil 4 and Gears Of War, so you're thinking “ah you just have to aim your arrows at their heads, sweet!” Sadly, it's not quite like that. While yes, you can aim for their heads, the point is to use what Ninja Theory dub the “aftertouch” in order to get precise shots. To do this, you hold down the shoot button, and then everything is in slow motion while you use the sixaxis motion controls to move the arrow around. Besides the fact that this has no basis in logic (how do arrows go up one minute, then down the next, then up and towards the right the following minute), it feels very... gimmicky. You have to hold the controller in a way where the shoulder buttons are facing the screen to keep the arrow centered, and move the controller around to move the arrow around. I have no idea why they would do this when simply shooting would feel more natural. But hey, this is 2007 and we're experimenting with new technology to see what works and what doesn't. Granted, you can simply shoot by just pressing the shoot button – that could make everything I said against the motion control seem like needless bitching, had it not been for any segment where Nariko has to throw objects at switches or fire cannonballs at catapults. That's where you really need to get your aim just right, or you won't be able to solve otherwise easy puzzles that are in the game for the sole purpose of getting players to use the sixaxis controls. In other words, what should be simple things are made more complicated than they have to be due to the gimmicky sixaxis.

Now, when it comes to earlier games in a console's lifespan, the graphics age more like soft drinks than like wine. But Heavenly Sword has the distinction of still looked really good, even in 2013. That's mainly because it doesn't exactly use a realistic graphical style – it looks more like a smooth, high definition painting by hand. It shows it hand with its outdoor environments, with pastel details on the ground and in the sky with a painstaking amount of attention paid to every little detail in the lighting and intricately drawn lines. Speaking of painstaking detail, the facial animations are fantastic beyond belief. The lip syncing is pitch perfect with the voice work, and their emotions displayed on their faces are exquisitely animated, detailing the looks on their faces in a way that works really well with the voice work. I love how Heavenly Sword just casually has this detail going for it while LA Noire used it as a selling point because Team Bondi some high end motion capture techology. The rest of the characters' bodies are also really well animated, especially Nariko's swordplay which results in some hypnotic combo attacking against armies of enemies. It does lag a bit when you're fighting millions of enemies, but a bigger problem comes in the form of screen tearing, where parts of the screen will tear away during some bigger fights and more graphically demanding cutscenes that may take you out of it. Still, it doesn't completely detract from the fact that the game looks excellent.

It's complimented by grandiose symphonic scores – when there actually are some! During key moments, there'll be some big sweeping symphonics that'll make these moments feel bigger in scope. Whether it's the beginning or end of the game, or certain segments towards the end, you can tell that they wanted something more like what you'd hear in Lord Of The Rings or God Of War. But a lot of the time, it's just dead silence, except for the sounds that emit from footsteps and when attacks connect. It's a bit of an odd design choice to have fights that just consist of sound effects - even boss fights are lucky to have music to make them feel bigger. Ah well. The voice acting is top notch. The villains sound so devlishly over the top, especially King Bohan. Then again, kingy's voice by Andy Serkis, and his style is to be as fiendishly silly and yet still threatening at the same time, which goes well with the character's personality. Nariko's voice lends itself to convey her serious yet snarky remarks in a way that really makes them work. In general, every voice actor manages to bring the script to life, managing to make each cutscene well worth the watch as it deeply immerses you into the events that are unfolding.

While games like Resistance and Motorstorm showed off higher end graphical capabilities for those just entering the new generation, Heavenly Sword shows off how it can all be used to make a fantastic game that keeps you wondering how it can be topped. Although it also makes you wonder if there'll be somebody out there that can put the sixaxis to good use instead of it just feeling like a gimmicky afterthought - at least, it would've if you were one of a handful of people who had a PS3 back in 2007. But this isn't 2007; this is 2013, where there are plenty of people with PS3s who have probably missed out on some great earlier games like this. The only real problem comes from the sixaxis because when motion control isn't involved, this is a fantastic game. With a dynamic cast of characters and intense battles, it's hard to deny that Heavenly Sword is definitely one of the finest games in this generation.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

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